Antisemitism, Islamophobia and the Politics of Definition

May 22, 2024

On 16 May, the CEU Nationalism Studies Department and Jewish Studies Programme organised an event on the problems and politics of defining antisemitism, Islamophobia, and racism, bringing together scholars, experts, and practitioners. The burning question of how to combat racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism is deeply connected with how we understand and define them. Recent years have seen a plethora of definitions, produced by scholars, practitioners, activists, and bureaucrats in the belief that a clear understanding of the phenomena is necessary – or even a precondition – for successfully confronting it. While some definitions have been adopted by NGOS, governments, universities, etc. they have also faced criticism by scholars and activists. The starting point for the discussion was a recent volume, co-edited by David Feldman and Marc Volovici entitled ‘’, published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2023.


David Feldman, director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism in London spoke on the politics of the definition of antisemitism, starting with the observation that while there have been discrimination and persecution of Jews for centuries, it was only in the early 21st century that people came to believe that a definition of the term would help to confront this. The question was then: why this was the case, how the definitions evolved, and how this development influenced the efforts of others – notably those confronting Islamophobia – in their own efforts.


Rebecca Ruth Gould, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Poetics and Global Politics, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, one of the contributors to the volume, spoke to the misuse of definitions of antisemitism in particular and offered a counterproposal in the forms of thick descriptions, centring on societal consensus and on the experience of people who face discrimination, harassment, and violence.


Désirée Sandanasamy, legal advisor to ZARA (Zivilcourage und Antirassismus-Arbeit), a leading NGO in the field, based here in Vienna, spoke to the work of ZARA and the role definitions play in the day-to-day work of the organisation. She highlighted the centrality of people’s lived experiences in the face of racist discrimination, and particularly emphasised the importance of racist structures in society, as opposed to the matter of individual prejudices.      


The event aimed to bring together the scholarly perspective with the practical experiences of the everyday efforts to confront racism in our society. Whether definitions help in these efforts remain a somewhat open question – undoubtedly, for many involved in the debate, advocacy groups, scholars, politicians, etc. the question of how to define what we aim to confront remains in itself a contested issue.